Bowel problems: incontinence, constipation and more | ౦

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Bowel problems

Many of us get constipated or have an upset stomach once in a while. However, if you're experiencing problems regularly or they're starting to affect your daily life, it's important that you make an appointment to see your doctor.

Throughout this page we use the term 'poo'. We understand that everyone uses their own language for this kind of thing and so this term might not be for everyone – but we've done some research and this was preferred overall.


What is constipation?

Constipation is a common bowel problem and happens when particularly hard poo becomes difficult to pass. You're probably constipated if you haven't pooed at least 3 times during the last week or you're pooing less often than usual, or if you're straining or in pain when you poo.

What causes constipation?

Constipation can be caused by lots of things, including:

  • not eating enough fibre or ‘roughage’ (found in foods such as wholemeal bread and cereals, fruit and vegetables)
  • not drinking enough – you should drink at least 6 to 8 cups of liquid a day
  • not moving around much
  • certain medicines (such as some painkillers)
  • not being able to get to a toilet or putting off going so the feeling that you need to empty your bowel goes away
  • some neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s
  • bowel conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

How can I treat and prevent constipation? 

If you can, eating a healthy and balanced diet containing plenty of fibre-rich foods (such as wholewheat bread, lentils and beans and fruit and vegetables). Some movement – such as a walk or some gentle exercise – can also help you poo. 

If changes to your diet and lifestyle don't help, see a pharmacist. They can suggest a suitable laxative. 

If the constipation lasts more than 3 weeks, make an appointment with your doctor. Any bleeding should be reported immediately.


What is diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is when you pass frequent, urgent, watery poos that can cause you to have an accident if you can't get to a toilet in time. 

What causes diarrhoea? 

Diarrhoea has many causes, including the overuse of laxatives, bacterial or viral infections, or conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn's disease. 

How can I treat diarrhoea?

Make sure you stay at home, get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids – water or squash is best. If you feel sick, take small sips. Only eat when you feel ready to. 

If you've had diarrhoea for more than a few days, make an appointment with your doctor. Any bleeding should be reported immediately.


How can I check for bowel cancer?

Bowel problems can occur in people of all ages and aren’t usually a sign of a serious problem. However, bowel cancer is more common in older people, so it's important to talk to your doctor if problems continue for more than 3 weeks.

What are the symptoms of bowel cancer?

Bowel cancer symptoms include:

  • blood in your poo
  • changes in your bowel habits
  • lower abdominal pain, bloating or discomfort.

When will I get a screening for bowel cancer?

The NHS offers free bowel screenings every 2 years to people aged between 56 and 74 – although you may be invited before you turn 56, as the programme is gradually expanding to include people from the age of 50.

Once you’re eligible, you should automatically receive a letter with a leaflet explaining the process, then a test kit in the post a week later. This screening test can pick up signs of cancer before you experience any symptoms. Spotting cancer early means it’s more likely to be treated successfully.

If you notice anything unusual in your bowel habits before you reach this age, or between screenings, don’t ignore it – make an appointment with your doctor or other healthcare professional. 

If you haven’t received a kit, or you’re 75 or over and would like a screening test, call the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.


What is bowel incontinence?

Bowel incontinence (also known as 'faecal incontinence') is when you can't control when you poo and you have accidents. It's usually a symptom of an underlying medical condition that affects the bowel, such as constipation, diarrhoea or multiple sclerosis. It can be uncomfortable to talk about, but it's nothing to be embarrassed about.

Bowel incontinence can also be caused by muscle weakness or damage to the muscles that control the anus. Some women who experience muscle damage in childbirth can develop control problems later in life.

How is bowel incontinence diagnosed? 

If you have a problem with your bowel, talking to a health professional is the best way to get help. A doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms, identify the cause, and talk to you about what treatment or exercises may help cure or tackle the problem.

A healthcare professional might ask you some questions and do some tests to help them understand how your bowel work. These can include:

  • a diary of your bowel habits
  • a physical examination
  • a sample of your poo for testing.

How is bowel incontinence treated?

The solutions your doctor or other health professional suggests will depend on the type of problem you’re experiencing. What works will vary from person to person, and sometimes more than one treatment will be needed.

We've listed some common types of available treatment below. 

Bowel training

Bowel training involves establishing a regular time to poo and stimulating your bowels to empty themselves. 

Medication

Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what medication might help your problem and what side effects there might be.

Changes to your diet

Depending on the type of bowel problem you're experiencing, changes to your diet may help ease some of the symptoms of incontinence, or prevent them altogether. 

Surgery

For some people, surgery may be an option if other treatments haven’t worked.

How can incontinence products help me?

Treatment doesn’t always stop incontinence completely – but the right continence products can help you manage the problem and reduce its impact on your daily life. Some unisex products include the following:

  • washable products such as re-usable pads, which often come as part of a pair of pants
  • disposable pads which are held in place by close-fitting pants
  • disposable pants, or all-in-one pads with plastic backing and adhesive patches to seal the sides (these are generally more suitable for heavy incontinence)
  • bed or chair protectors in the form of disposable or washable pads.

You can buy many continence products in pharmacies and supermarkets – but you should seek professional advice before using them permanently. It’s important to identify the cause of your problem as there may be treatment that can help.

To qualify for free incontinence products provided by the NHS, you’re likely to need to meet criteria set out by your local NHS continence service. If you're assessed as eligible, you should receive a supply of continence products free of charge. Your local doctor or healthcare professional will explain what type of products and devices are available.


What are some tips for living well with bowel problems?

There are lots of things you can do to manage your bowel problems and live well on a daily basis. 

Be prepared

Try thinking of practical solutions to problems that might arise while you’re out. You could take some spare pads and pants with you. Scented bags for soiled pads or pants could be useful if you’re worried about smell.

You may find a toilet card helpful. The ‘I Can’t Wait’ Toilet Card states clearly that you have a medical condition and that you need to use a toilet urgently. Showing this card can help you avoid the queue for a public toilet.

If you're going on a long journey with family or friends and know you'll need to use the toilet frequently, let them know beforehand. That way, you can plan extra stops so you won't have to worry.

Take care of your skin

Washing regularly and drying carefully with a soft towel will help to keep your skin healthy. It's also important to make sure you change pads regularly.

If your skin becomes red or sore, make sure that any pads fit properly and aren't rubbing. If your skin becomes raw, speak with your doctor or a nurse immediately as this could lead to a skin infection.

Change pads frequently to avoid smell

The smell from bowel incontinence can be difficult to hide, but changing soiled pads as soon as possible or putting them into a sealed bag or airtight container can help.

Dress for ease

Try to wear clothing with elasticated waists, or fastenings with Velcro instead of zips and buttons, as this can make it easier to dress and undress.

Plan before you travel

If you’re going on a long journey with family or friends, and you know you’ll need to use the toilet frequently, let them know beforehand. That way you can plan extra stops so you won't have to worry.

Consider home adaptations

If equipment or home adaptations, such as handrails in the bathroom or a commode, might help with your incontinence, speak to social services. You’re eligible for a free care needs assessment, conducted by your local authority, to find out what help and support you need at home.

Find out more about care needs assessments

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Last updated: Dec 06 2023

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